Teenage star Denis Shapovalov talks talent and toil, fame and Roger Federer
Denis Shapovalov has a strong work-ethic, a positive attitude, and soaks up advice from his elders and betters with enthusiasm
So dominant has one quartet of players been, and for so long, that it has at times seemed as though Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have managed to upset the unwritten law of sporting endeavour.
It is a law that states that every champion, sooner or later, must hand over his seat at the top table to a younger rival. Except that since the start of 2004, this particular quartet, now all in their 30s, has won 49 of 56 Majors, 113 of 137 Masters, and held sway at No1 throughout.
New challengers have burst onto the scene—Juan Martin del Potro looked ready and able to take them on but was cut down by repeated surgery. Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin, all now 26, have made it to the top 10 but have largely been kept at arm’s length by ‘the quartet’.
Perhaps, fans and followers began to say, it will take a still younger generation to knock the kings from their throne. And perhaps, this last year, some pretenders to the throne have indeed begun to emerge.
Leading the way has been the assured German Alexander Zverev. He won his first title in St Petersburg a year ago, and this year has won five titles, two of them Masters—just like Federer and Nadal. He stands at No4 in the rankings, and is miles clear of his #NextGen rivals in the Race to Milan: He is also just 20 years old.
However, in the last few months, another young player has stepped into the spotlight. Until this summer, Denis Shapovalov was hammering his way through the Future and Challenger circuits, yet the tennis of the young Canadian was already capturing the imagination. It was explosive, creative, uninhibited—in short, a breath of fresh air, just like the fresh-faced player himself.
For those who saw his debut victory on the main tour last summer at his home tournament in Toronto, the promise was already writ very large.
At 17 years old, he was world junior No2 after winning Wimbledon and reaching the semis at the French Open. He played a crowd-pleasing, free-swinging game with a single-handed backhand—and he would beat the No11 seed Nick Kyrgios in three thrilling sets.
Even the locals seemed taken aback by the quality of their new star. He looked, one watching supporter said, “just a kid”. The reply came: “Well he is!”
Fast forward to his home Masters this year where, with another clutch of Challenger wins to his credit and a ranking of 143, he would make his mark not just with Canadian fans but with tennis fans worldwide.
Del Potro in the second round? No problem. Nadal in third round? A gutsy win in a final set tie-breaker. Shapovalov eventually fell to Zverev in the semis, making him the youngest ever to reach that stage of a Masters, but his jump to 69 in the rankings came too late for the main draw at the US Open.
That worried him not. He won his way through, and scored his first Major match-win to reach the second round. There, he played on the biggest stage in tennis, Arthur Ashe, and beat No12 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And so big had the Shapovalov story become that he played his next two matches there too. When he finally lost, in three tie-breaks to Pablo Carreno Busta, it was to a standing ovation.
In conversation away from the spotlight during his recent visit to play the Laver Cup in Prague, Shapovalov chatted about that heart-lifting moment.
“I think the best moment this year so far was making the semi-final of my home tournament. But Arthur Ashe at the US Open—now you bring that up, I feel like that’s close too. The roar of the crowd when I [put my bag down to thank them], it was such an honour to be on that court for three days, just be part of that event, and to receive the applause and standing ovation. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
It is easy to forget just how young this polite teenager is, too. At 18 and a half, he is more than a year younger than any of the other #NextGen top 12—he is currently at No4 in the Race to Milan—yet shows remarkable maturity in handling the growing demands that have come with fame.
“It’s just something I have to get used to. I don’t mind it. It’s pretty cool. I chose to be a tennis player, and [dealing with publicity] is one of the parts of my job—I’m fine with it.
“But it is more all the travelling, stuff like this. I still get shocked when I’m on the streets, and people start shouting my name and recognising me, and want a picture of me!”
He is equally pragmatic when it comes to his place in the Shapovalov family. His tennis-coach mother was not able to come to New York to see her son become the youngest fourth-round man there in almost 30 years: “It was the transition from summer to fall so a lot of kids were in the programme, and she’s loyal to her kids.” Meanwhile, his father had a long-standing vacation planned with other members of the family—but really, no sweat.
Shapovalov’s foundation, however, is clearly rock solid. He has a strong work-ethic, a positive attitude, and soaks up advice from his elders and betters with enthusiasm. So the environment at the Laver Cup suited him to a tee.
On Rod Laver: “I always knew about him, I mean Rod Laver’s a legend, but obviously when I was growing up, watching TV, Roger and Rafa were my main idols, but I think recently, having the chance to meet [Laver] and reading up about him, and watching some clips, he’s become a real idol of mine. He’s such a gentleman, such a great guy, it’s so cool to have that chance to have him around.”
On Federer: “Roger’s been awesome with me. I got to know him a little bit and he always talks well about me… He’s just such a nice guy, genuine easy-going person. I mean when you think about it, it’s Roger, it’s the guy who has won a million Grand Slams, and done unbelievable his whole career. And the first impression you get is, ‘Oh god, it’s Roger,’ but then you get a chance to meet him, and he’s just like anyone else, so nice and so kind with everyone, doesn’t matter who you are. Honestly, I look up to that…”
And then there is Shapovalov’s infectious enthusiasm for his sport:
“I completely love the sport. I love working hard, putting the effort in to improve myself, and the biggest motivation is seeing myself do better, going deeper in tournaments, and being a better player.”
He went on to explain why he had grabbed the chance to play in the Laver Cup despite winning two rubbers in a home Davis Cup tie just days before.
“It wasn’t easy to travel, coming from Edmonton, but if I can stay in the top 50, this is what it’s going to be like, and I told my team I want to play a lot of tournaments in the fall so I can get used to all this travelling—just to see what it would be like if I do manage to keep up my tennis.
“I still think I have so much work to do. I don’t know if my ranking is really 50: I’ve played a couple of good tournaments but I have to learn to do it week in week out, and I feel there are so many areas of my game that I still have to work hard to stay in this range and go further.”
Modest, too, but make no mistake: This eminently likable young man is more than just top-50 material. By this time next year, he could be following in the footsteps of Zverev, not just winning titles and ranking points, but winning the kind of following reserved only for the sport’s most exciting players. And the charismatic tennis of Shapovalov is as exciting as it comes.
Shapovalov has been awarded a wild card into the main draw of the Shanghai Rolex Masters, which begins next week.